Sen. Boxer: Public should be notified about high hazard coal ash sites

Guest Blog | June 12, 2009 | Coal, Energy Policy
Photo from ABC News
Photo from ABC News

In a press conference today, Senator Barbara Boxer, Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, revealed some startling information about coal ash storage sites across America.  Forty-four have been identified to pose a “high hazard” to nearby communities, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can’t disclose the locations of those sites.

Nearly six months ago, a disastrous coal ash spill occurred at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in eastern Tennessee.  Senator Barbara Boxer immediately held a hearing about the incident to better understand the problem of coal combustion waste (download SACE’s testimony here), and today she held a press conference to update the public on her Committee and the EPA’s ongoing investigations into the hundreds of unregulated coal ash sites across the country.

After referencing SACE executive director Dr. Steven Smith’s comments that household garbage faces stricter regulation than coal waste, Senator Boxer described some of the investigations’ findings:

” Today, 44 of these [coal ash] sites pose a ‘high hazard’….It means that they’re located in such a way that, if these coal ash ponds were to fail, they would pose a threat to the people living nearby.”

Senator Boxer asked the EPA to follow up on these “high hazard” sites to ensure that the public is protected.  She thinks that communities ought to be notified if they’re living next to a “high hazard” coal ash facility, but others disagree.

Simply put, Senator Boxer says, “Homeland Security and the Army Corps have decided, that in the interest of national security, [EPA] can’t make these sites known.” She questions this decision and said she is sending a letter to the Army corps and the Department of Homeland Security requesting more information:

“We are pursuing whether the handling of these sites is consistent with the handling of other similar facilities because of the critical importance of the public’s right to know about threats in their communities.  If these sites are so hazardous, and if the neighborhoods nearby could be harmed irreparably, then I believe it is essential to let people know….”

Despite what she described as a “huge muzzle” on her and her staff about the “high hazard” sites, Senator Boxer promised that the Committee’s investigation into our country’s handling of coal ash, including the storage facilities, will continue.  These issues, she said, will be the subject of future Committee hearings.

The Senator reiterated EPA’s authority to regulate coal ash and said, “I know that they understand the need to move quickly to regulate these sites.”  Senator Boxer expects regulations to be set forth by the end of the year.

“One of the things we all learned from the TVA spill is that a close look at these facilities is extremely important, and we cannot rely on general assurances that the sites are safe….I am not pleased that we cannot notify the people who live near these sites.”

Although the Senator said it is not known whether any of the 44 facilities pose an imminent threat, she thinks withholding the locations of “high hazard” sites is probably inconsistent with how we handle other high-risk sites such as nuclear power plants or Superfund sites. 

Click here to watch a video of the press conference.

Click here to read Senator Boxer’s statement.

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